CHICAGO -- Tom Thibodeau tried to tell you.
He tried to make you see what he saw. From the moment he was hired back in June, he tried to explain to Bulls fans that Luol Deng was the real deal. That Deng, the much maligned 25-year-old swingman, was a great player who would only get better in his system.
After watching Deng torch the Pacers on Friday night to the tune of 29 points in 30 minutes, it's hard not to see what Thibodeau saw all along: If Deng stays healthy, and, of course, that's always a gigantic if, he has a chance to be very, very good this season.
"I always thought he was a guy that you worried about because he was capable of having a big game," Thibodeau said after Friday’s 102-74 win over the Pacers in the Bulls’ preseason finale. "All the things that he does puts constant pressure on your defense. It does not matter what play you are running because Luol is clever without the ball. He knows how to cut behind the defense. He's very good at finding open areas and attacking the basket. You add that three point shot to his game and it puts even more pressure. The defense is flying out at him and he is making even more good decisions."
Those decisions have been apparent all preseason long, and were visible once again on Friday night. Not only did Deng rack up 29 points, he also had eight rebounds and three assists, going three-for-five from beyond the arc.
"We're really doing a good job of moving the ball," Deng said. "Whenever I'm open I feel like the ball's coming to me. I just feel like the way we move the ball right now is the best that we've done that for a while."
There is no doubt that this is the best that Deng has looked in a while. He is starting to take -- and make -- the long-range shots that have eluded him over the last few years and he is also starting to drive to the hoop more. He was 12-for-12 from the free-throw line and continues to take it strong to the hoop.
"I didn't tell myself, ‘I'm going to get to the line a certain amount of times’, I just think the way the system is, with me being able to drive and slash, I'm really moving freely on the floor. The spacing is so good, I'm just finding myself aggressively going to the line, driving. I would say I am doing a better job initiating contact than I did in the past."
It's not just the aggressive play that is making the difference for Deng at the moment, it's the fact that he is as healthy as he's been in a while. After struggling to recover from a stress fracture in his leg last summer, Deng came into camp in some of the best shape of his life after spending the summer playing for Team Great Britain.
"I don't know if it's the most confidence I've felt, but I just felt great this summer," Deng said. "I'm always playing. I don't like to take the summers off or take time off, and I felt like last summer was really hard for me to just sit down with the injury and wait til like three days before preseason and that's when I started really playing live. So it's really different just playing all summer and coming into the preseason in shape and continually playing, so that really helped my confidence."
Johnson continues to impress: James Johnson has struggled to find consistent time in the Bulls’ rotation since being drafted last summer, but it seems he's finally ready to change that. After dropping almost 30 pounds over the summer, Johnson has had a solid training camp and finished it off with another strong performance, going 4-for-4 from the field and finishing with 11 points.
"I thought he played very well," Thibodeau said. "Defensively, he was very good. He made quick decisions and the team functioned well when he was out there."
If Johnson continues to play as he has lately, he will find a way to get on the floor once the real games begin on Wednesday in Oklahoma City.
The last word: Derrick Rose, on if he thinks this is the best team he has played on heading into the season.
"Yes," he said. "I already know. The vibe that [we have] every day in practice when we come in is crazy, where guys are always working out, helping each other, always hanging with each other. It's kind of like getting into a college team, so that's a good sign."